I’m a Buddhist—but today I went to Catholic Church.
It’s the quiet hour between services. I pull the pew kneeler out. The hinge squeaks as it comes down and I hear that thud of rubber on wood.
I kneel and am able to feel a sadness I had been unable to feel just moments before. I cry good and deep so the tears ride each other, one allowing the other to slide off my cheeks onto my sweater.
I feel my heart warm open.
My lips begin to move and I’m surprised by the words that come out. Somehow I know exactly what to say. After each uncovering of a fear or doubt I feel the alchemy of a shift and I receive the medicine of prayer.
I sense that one of the biggest sorrows of our modern times is our disconnection from the peace that prayer brings.
Prayer is, for many, synonymous with religion. With its history of self-righteous morality, division, and violence it’s not surprising that a practice tied to religion would be underutilized.
In reflecting on my own relationship to prayer as I’ve grown older, I feel inspired to remind you of this practice that provides almost instant relief if you are willing to surrender to it.
The best way I can do that is through parts of my story. It’s not for everyone, but it just may be for you.
When I was a child, prayer was the only thing that helped my overwhelming, unattended anxiety.
It was the 80s and my mom and dad were not even 20 when I was born. I remember seeing drugs at parties my mom would take me to. People would be laughing and talking and then sniffing lines of white powder. I was told it was sinus medicine. Deep down I knew better.
I could sniff out their inattention to me.
Over time, I became filled with the fear and shame that came from believing the lack of attention was somehow my fault.
One day prayer changed that.
I was eight years old and in church. My grandparents used to take me and my little sister every Sunday. They were some of the sanest people in our lives.
I was worried sick. I worried about everything. I developed migraines. Each day my mind would torment me and I believed everything it told me so I couldn’t enjoy much of anything.
I was silent and stoic and suffering. The kneeler came down, proceeded by those sounds of devotion, and I gave up. I knelt and prayed. I prayed like I’d never prayed before. I let my whole body pray. I shook. I got hot. I stared at the large crucifix above the grand altar and in that Catholic church in Bellflower I asked, “Lord, please take away this worry. I don’t know what to do anymore. Please, bring me some relief.”
The next morning, my obsessive worry was gone. Something important had shifted within me.
Prayer had brought my deepest core wound into the light. I felt heard. I felt safe. I felt understood. I felt loved.
But just because we find a good thing doesn’t mean we appreciate it, use it, or attend to it. Prayer requires cultivation.
It wasn’t cool to pray when I was 13. My best friend and I had started going to this church. It was the kind with the young blond minister and hip congregation and all the prayer and mention of God or the Lord or Jesus Christ was so frequent it felt dishonest.
Everything was so light and bright and happy. It didn’t match our insides. We would sit in the corner and I had to be careful not to be too eager or too excited. I stopped praying out loud.
God became dorky.
My friend didn’t even believe in God and I didn’t yet believe in my heart, but the need to worship was strong and so I devoted myself to boys instead. That devotion would come to include alcohol and a drive to people-please that kept me just numb enough to get through university, a failed engagement, and a cubicle at a corporate job.
I was 26. At some point I broke down. I was having panic attacks and nothing was working. So, I tried meditation.
I remember when I first began. I saw a flyer for free meditation classes and I went to all six sessions. I began meditating at home. It was really hard, but I kept going. Something was clicking, I just didn’t know what.
As I got still, I realized my monkey mind was in full-blown panic mode—each fearful thought seduced me with its promise to make me feel better. I realized I was believing those thoughts could protect me, when in reality they were keeping a painful cycle going.
Once I saw through the story, my body made its confession. The caverns, grooves, and knots that shame and anxiety had worn began to make themselves known. The ecstatic and painful process of coming home to myself had begun. My mind was seized by endless thoughts and my gut and heart were gripped with tension. It was so intense, the only thing I could do was pray.
“God, please help me. I don’t know what’s happening to me and I don’t know what to do.”
It settled over me and under its warm blanket I felt my breath again.
I continued to meditate. I would pull out my cushion in front of the pine alter I had set up from a Pier 1 folding table. I would breath and feel my breath in my lower abdomen, as my teacher taught me.
My whole life started changing. I started changing.
My prayers were silent. I let my body reach out and touch the God I found kneeling on that pew so many years ago.
I started kneeling again, but with my bones and muscles and big beating heart. I emptied myself again and again. Words seemed too heavy, so I dropped them. My prayers became a continual return to just this.
I find all this extraordinary, as I cry once again on my knees in front of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Mother. The prodigal daughter is an archetype I now claim. My practice of prayer changes in form and frequency but is always available when I choose to use it.
I have so many words now, specific ones my body conveys to me. If I find the right words to match what I’m feeling, my heart blossoms like someone who feels heard for the first time.
I stand to leave but my feet don’t move. This seems too vulnerable, too sacred to bring out into the open. I have been praying and crying after all.
Then it occurs to me that this is just what is needed amongst the busy souls walking, biking and driving by. That this is what they are looking for too and I am witnessing their way of finding it.
When was the last time you prayed? If you could pray right now, what would you say?
What darkness have you been holding? What needs forgiving within you?
Sometimes the prayer is silent before it finds words. Before it finds consciousness. Then the words may come to make the silence less frightening. Sometimes the silence alone is enough of a prayer.
It contains within it the calling to surrender, to bring your heart home to itself.
Author: Carina Nickerson
Image: Mermaids (1990)
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren